Creating a Site Survey

Okay, I am stepping up to my role here as whip-cracker. You can call me Madam Calamity from now on.

I would like for all interested participants to start by creating a site survey. This is a survey— purely mapping and observation, with a little healthy dose of ‘visioning’ thrown in– so will not require any prior permaculture knowledge. In other words, do this while you are waiting for your manual to arrive.

I want site surveys done by November 20th, so nobody is trying to finish it up while the Thanksgiving turkey is in the oven and early Christmas mania is taking hold.
I know some of you do not own property. From what I know about permaculture, I believe it is imperative to work with a real piece of land for your design project, rather than a fantasized perfect homestead. So if you don’t have your own conveniently outside your doorstep, try to find the nearest piece of land to your home that you will be able to snoop around with a tape measure and spend some time on. The yard of your rental, or a nearby park.

I’ve taken the liberty of photographing the relevant pages out of Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. His book is my top recommendation for those just starting out, and I hate to steal anything from it. But given the circumstances, I think Toby would understand.

He breaks the survey process into Observation and Visioning. I would further break it down into these steps:

1. Map your property. For real, with a tape measure. No cheating. This why I’m giving you nearly a month. Put all existing structures and trees on there, and make an attempt to represent rough topography (slopes).

2. Map the patterns of external factors such as your “sunprint” (where it falls, morning noon and night. Of course this is seasonal, but just go with what it’s doing right now), wind patterns and water drainage. You don’t need to be exact, but the more specific the better. Also detail your climate and general weather patterns. We all need to know where you are and what it’s like.

3. Pure observation. Toby explains below.

4. Resource Assessment. What you’ve got to work with– time, materials, money, etc. Don’t skimp on this very practical consideration.

5. Visioning. This sounds hokey, but it is important. This is the survey of YOU and what you want/need from your land. I read Second Nature recently (Michael Pollan’s first book, really great rumination on gardening. Very not permaculture.) and was stuck with his emphasis on finding the “genius of the place” which I understood to mean, the very special-est thing. The jewel. It sparked my realization that our side yard is a porch, the whole of it, even though it has no actual porch whatsoever. The “genius” of our yard is it’s large gap view of the spectacular mountains across the valley, and I realized with a thud that my previous designs, which had tried to use that gap for it’s meager sun access, were misguided. The garden beds need to frame and support that amazing view, and shelter the area we use for lounging, rather than block it. I think Second nature freed me from my overemphasis on function and allowed me to place a significant importance on enjoyment of our yard.

I suggest printing out the page (below) that has the ‘what to observe checklist.’ It will help keep you focused.

If you want to see what a certified permaculture design looks like, which always starts with a site survey and base map, check out this one from Alderleaf Farm, it’s 31 pages, but I suggest you just look at the first section on site description, history and climate. Here’s an even more technical one from Belleview, France. It is 51 pages long, fully 15 of which are site and “context” description.

I’m not expecting us to meet this caliber, but I should think we would all generate at least a full page or two of description, as well as the map itself.

Okay. And… Go!

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4 Responses to Creating a Site Survey

  1. Okay first dumb question… What’s everybody using to do this? Graph paper & pencil or a computer program?

    • Calamity Jane says:

      i like to use old fashioned graph paper and pencils. i will be posting a photo of mine soon, to give everyone an idea of what i’m talking about. computer savvy types might prefer to use some kind of program, i’m sure there are good ones. but that kind of thing is more trouble than it’s worth for backwards luddites like me.

  2. farmer_liz says:

    I just found your site, very exciting idea, thanks for offering to lead us through this. I’m just buying the book now. Looking forward to many interesting discussions!

  3. BlueWren says:

    Wow! I might actually be in this group now! I have my book and have been trying to find my way in!!

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